Tough, irascible, passionate — with life story to match
Sports are about the moment, and football has the memory of a play clock. So a few generations only know Bob Kuechenberg from his get-off-my-lawn rants or his unsatisfied hope for the Hall of Fame. And that’s fine. That’s part of his story.
Even after his latest failed nomination last August, Kuechenberg noted how he was the only eighttime finalist not in the Hall and had resigned himself to not ever getting in before catching himself in a glimpse of self-awareness.
“Don’t say that,” he told me. “People think I’m angry enough already.”
He knew who he was, right to his death at age 71. His legacy deserves more than that cartoon sketch, though. His life was so much more. Where do you even start? With a personal story of his father being a human cannonball in a Midwestern circus, causing Kuechenberg to joke, “Dad said I could go to college or
be a cannonball.”
Or do you start with his football life? How he was a five-time, All-Pro guard for the mighty Dolphins of the 1970s — and an All-Pro tackle once? How he quit on the Philadelphia team that drafted him, played for a semi-pro team in Chicago and then signed with the Dolphins simply because his Notre Dame backup, Ed Tuck, was on the roster.
“I knew I was better than him,” Kuechenberg said.
You could just start and end with the story of Kuechenberg’s broken left arm. It tells his story.
Years later, he’d bring friends over to his house, mix them drinks and take his time perfecting them with a metal stirrer as he told the story in detail.
It began with him breaking his arm on a kickoff in December of 1973, the year after the undefeated one that’s in the history books. This next season was the one those Dolphins remember as the more dominant team, though, and Kuechenberg didn’t want to miss the playoffs. Kuechenberg came to the sideline.
“He said to me, ‘Doc, you’ve got to tape me up or something,’ ” the late Charles Virgin once said. “I couldn’t do that. I could feel the end of the [broken] bones go crack, crack, crunch, crunch, grind, grind. I took him out of the game. He was very angry at me.”
With the playoffs coming, Kuechenberg told Virgin to come up with a plan. Virgin had only one idea. He could drill the bone marrow from the arm, replace it with a metal rod and put the arm in a cast. That’s exactly what they did, too.
Kuechenberg beat that cast into mush that Super Bowl against Minnesota defensive tackle Alan Page, that seasons’ defensive player of the year. It wasn’t just the cast. Kuechenberg noticed on film Page set his left foot back a fraction if he was rushing to the inside.
Page had one tackle. Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese only threw seven times. The offensive line and fullback Larry Csonka dominated the day to the point Page became so frustrated he was kicked out of the game near the end.
“That metal rod was embedded in my arm so tightly Dr. Virgin broke three tools getting it out,” Kuechenberg would say to his friends, still stirring the drinks.
Then he’d pull the stirrer from a drink.
“Here’s the metal rod,” he’d say.
That’s the quintessential Kuechenberg story, full of oddness, toughness and a chuckle at the end. That left arm, alone, should get him in the Hall. If all his awards don’t. If his 14 Dolphins years and 196 games (both rank behind only Dan Marino) can’t.
His favorite play became the name of his boat: “34 Trap.” He knocked out Baltimore defensive end Bubba Smith running it and hit Cincinnati’s Mike Reid so hard that, years later, when they met, Reid said, “Oh my god, there’s the man that hit me so hard I couldn’t fall down.”
That play also was the final one Kuechenberg ran as a Dolphin. He was in training camp in 1984, in a career that spanned
Griese and Marino, when something happened on “34 Trap.” He saw double vision. His optic nerve was so frayed from all the hits it finally broke, he said.
“That’s it,” he said on the practice field that day. “I’m done.”
He owned a few businesses after football and, more publicly, criticized the modern Dolphins loudly and often for a stretch. Hall of Famer Jason Taylor once said Kuechenberg, “needs a hug and a hobby.” Maybe he did, too.
He certainly needed surgery to correct his eye. He always saw double when he tilted his head down, as if in a threepoint stance. I once told him he probably liked that reminder. He didn’t disagree.
“I’ve read where a champion racehorse will run itself to death, and I was the same way on a football field,” he said.
“My attitude was that every Sunday was a dream come true.”
Remember him for that. Remember him as an hard-line, irascible old Dolphin, if you want. But the son of a human cannonball who starred on this franchise’s best Sundays was so much more than that.
Bob Kuechenberg, a Dolphins guard whose career spanned 14 years and four Super Bowl appearances, died Saturday.